Harris Cnty. v. Coats

Decision Date06 February 2020
Docket NumberNO. 14-17-00732-CV,14-17-00732-CV
Citation607 S.W.3d 359
Parties HARRIS COUNTY, Texas and Kevin Vailes, Appellants v. Barbara COATS, Individually, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Jamail Amron, Deceased, and as Heir to the Estate of Jamail Amron, Deceased; and Ali Amron, Individually and as Heir to the Estate of Jamail Amron, Deceased, Appellees
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Kevin Jewell, Justice

In this civil rights action, a Texas county and a deputy constable appeal a judgment following a jury verdict awarding wrongful death and survival damages. Appellees and plaintiffs below, Barbara Coats and Ali Amron, asserted a section 1983 claim against Harris County and Harris County Constable Precinct Four Deputy Kevin Vailes, alleging that the defendants' unconstitutional conduct caused the death of appellees' son, Jamail Amron. A jury found that Deputy Vailes violated Jamail's Fourth Amendment rights to be free from excessive force and unreasonable seizure. The jury also answered in appellees' favor a series of questions submitted to establish Harris County's liability under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 and Monell.1 The jury awarded (a) $1,000,000 in survival damages, (b) $10,000,000 in damages resulting from Jamail's death, and (c) $5,000 in exemplary damages against Deputy Vailes. The jury apportioned responsibility for Jamail's death 60% to Harris County, 20% to Deputy Vailes, and 20% to Jamail.

Harris County and Deputy Vailes seek reversal and rendition of judgment, in whole or in part, or a new trial. Appellees raise a cross-issue challenging the trial court's decision to reduce their recovery of survival damages by 20% because the jury was not asked to apportion responsibility for Jamail's pain and anguish.

For reasons explained below, we hold the following.

1. Appellees did not establish that Deputy Vailes's constitutional violations found by the jury were inflicted pursuant to an act or decision of a Harris County final policymaker responsible for the area of county business at issue. Thus, Harris County is not liable under section 1983 for any damages.
2. Legally and factually sufficient evidence supports the jury's findings that Deputy Vailes violated Jamail's constitutional rights to be free from excessive force.
3. Deputy Vailes is not entitled to qualified immunity from the excessive force claim.
4. Appellees did not present legally sufficient evidence that Deputy Vailes's constitutional violations found by the jury caused Jamail's death. Thus, Deputy Vailes is not liable under section 1983 for wrongful death damages.
5. Deputy Vailes's jury charge error complaint does not entitle him to a new trial because any error is harmless.
6. Legally sufficient evidence supports the exemplary damage award against Deputy Vailes.
7. Based on this jury charge, the trial court erred in reducing appellees' recovery for pain and mental anguish damages by 20%.

We reverse the judgment against Harris County and render judgment that appellees take nothing from Harris County. We reverse the portion of the judgment awarding wrongful death damages to appellees and render judgment that appellees take nothing from Deputy Vailes for damages resulting from Jamail's death. We modify the portion of the judgment awarding pain and mental anguish damages to provide that Coats, as personal representative of Jamail's estate, recover from Deputy Vailes $1,000,000 awarded by the jury for those damages, and we affirm as modified that part of the judgment. We additionally affirm the portion of the judgment awarding appellees $5,000 in exemplary damages against Deputy Vailes. Finally, in light of the reduction in damages, we remand the attorney's fee award to the trial court for redetermination. See Tex. R. App. P. 43.3.

Background

In September 2010, Jamail and his girlfriend were using cocaine in her apartment when he began feeling ill. Worried that the cocaine was "bad," Jamail left the apartment through a bedroom window to call for help. At 1:40 a.m., he called 911 from a public phone located on the apartment complex property. He told the operator that he had taken too many muscle relaxers and was having difficulty breathing. The operator dispatched an ambulance with two emergency medical technicians ("EMTs"), Sean Richardson and William May, for an "unknown possible drug overdose." For safety purposes, the operator placed a call for police back-up and instructed the EMTs to wait for law enforcement to arrive.

As the EMTs waited near the apartment complex, Richardson saw Jamail climb the fence and approach the ambulance, where Richardson spoke with him. Richardson described Jamail as distressed, extremely anxious, sweating, and hyperventilating. Jamail asked if the EMTs were there to help him. Jamail told Richardson that he had taken cocaine, that he thought there was "something in" it, and that he was afraid he would die. Richardson asked Jamail to allow an examination in the ambulance, but Jamail refused and ran toward a nearby Burger King restaurant.

The parties' descriptions of subsequent events vary significantly. Appellees' trial evidence centered on the testimony of Cindy Lansdale, a Burger King assistant manager working that night. As Lansdale closed out cash registers, she heard someone bang on a window. Outside she saw Jamail, wearing only shorts and a shirt. Jamail said he did not feel good and asked for a cup of water. She directed Jamail to the drive-through window. Lansdale described Jamail as hyperventilating, but he was otherwise calm, kind, respectful, and clear-spoken. Lansdale gave Jamail a cup of water, which he drank while sitting on the ground near the drive-through window. He asked Lansdale to keep an eye on him because he did not feel well.

Meanwhile, Harris County Precinct Four Deputy Bryan Saintes responded to the call for back-up and arrived on the scene. Deputy Saintes spoke with the EMTs, who told him that Jamail ran to the Burger King. Watching events from inside the drive-through window, Lansdale saw Deputy Saintes drive to the restaurant and park his vehicle ten to twelve feet from the window. Deputy Saintes cuffed Jamail's hands behind his back and walked him toward the ambulance. Jamail did not resist, but Lansdale heard him say, "I didn't do anything." Within two minutes after they reached the rear of the ambulance, Jamail became combative, broke away, and, hands still cuffed, ran back toward the drive-through window. Deputy Saintes pursued Jamail, and the two struggled as the deputy attempted to hold Jamail against the driver's side of the patrol vehicle. At that time, Precinct Four Deputies Jason Reese and Kevin Vailes, as well as Precinct Four Corporal Mary Haver, arrived as back-up, and they immediately assisted Deputy Saintes in the struggle. Shortly, all four officers were holding Jamail against the vehicle.

Lansdale then saw Richardson approach and stand next to Deputy Saintes. As an officer held Jamail, Richardson gave Jamail an injection in his shoulder. Jamail immediately collapsed into the officer's arms and fell to the ground, where he laid on his back with his eyes closed. Lansdale saw Deputy Reese place his foot on Jamail's calf muscles, while Corporal Haver "kick-tapped" his body as if she was "checking his body functions." Meanwhile, as Lansdale described, Deputy Vailes placed his police boot across Jamail's nostrils and mouth and pressed down with enough force so "that the arch of the neck was going flat along with the asphalt."2 While Jamail was on the ground, Lansdale did not hear him make noises or see him move, and his eyes were closed. Lansdale walked away from the drive-through window for about two to five minutes. When she returned to the window and looked out, she again saw Deputy Vailes's boot over Jamail's nose and mouth. Lansdale then stepped away from the window for approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. Lansdale saw no further interactions between Jamail, the deputies, and the EMTs. When she returned to the window a third time, Jamail was gone.

The officers and EMTs, for their part, generally agreed that Deputy Saintes was struggling to restrain Jamail when Deputies Reese and Vailes arrived at the scene, and that the group forced Jamail to the ground. Deputy Vailes denied that he placed his boot over Jamail's nose and mouth. Deputy Vailes said that he placed his knee, and then his foot, beside Jamail's head and put his hand on Jamail's forehead because—in contrast to Lansdale's description that Jamail appeared to be "dead or in a coma"—Jamail was banging his head and thrusting his torso up while trying to kick, spit, and bite the medical personnel and the deputies. While Jamail was restrained on the ground, Richardson said he administered two milligrams of a sedative, Versed. Because Jamail continued to struggle, Richardson administered a second two milligram dose of Versed, and Jamail "settled down" a few seconds later.

Deputy Vailes walked to his patrol vehicle, while the other deputies and EMTs rolled Jamail on his side and added extra sets of handcuffs so they could place a backboard behind him. At that time, Jamail was seen "breathing heavily." Richardson, May, and Deputy Reese noted that Jamail was breathing when they rolled him to his side.3 Deputy Reese also heard Jamail making noises. May described Jamail as "very calm and breathing normally." After the backboard was in place, the deputies and the EMTs lifted Jamail onto a stretcher. Then, Deputy Reese commented that Jamail looked pale and asked the EMTs if Jamail was breathing. One of the EMTs checked and said he was. Corporal Haver noticed that Jamail's breathing was shallow. She also asked the EMTs if Jamail's breathing was okay, and the EMT told her that the sedative they administered had taken effect. At Deputy Reese's request, an EMT checked Jamail's airway and said it was "good." After Jamail was placed on the stretcher and while being...

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